Brands can’t remain disinterested in social issues any longer. They can’t bury their heads in the sand and wait for crises to blow over. Customers have found their voices and, more importantly, they’ve realized the weight that their dollars carry. Now, they’re learning to use it.
More worrisome is that brands are woefully unprepared for handling cultural backlash, issues of free speech, and their moral places in a consumer-driven world that is inflamed by convenient righteousness and outrage on social media. That’s not to say that all outrage is wrong — in many cases it’s warranted -- but who draws that line and where do brands fit in?
It’s an area that most brands don’t want to get sucked into, but that’s now out of their control. Companies are constrained by advertising’s opacity with programmatic and television. It has brought brands unwittingly into cultural flashpoints and customer boycotts during the most polemical period in recent history.
So, how can brands proceed? Is the customer still always right when it comes to those issues? Who is your customer anyway? And how can you identify if they’re even angry? How can brands traverse the flashpoints that encompass so much of our visible lives?
Crisis plans exist for a reason
There’s an entire field of communications devoted to crisis planning. Be proactive and tailor a plan to the very real possibility that customers may want you to act based on moral or political grounds. Identify how you’ll reach out to them, let them know what your position is or even that you’re not taking a position, and share why or why not you plan on making a change. A proactive plan will help your brand to get ahead of the story without stumbling over the early issues that arise. The foundation is already built so your team can focus on the actual issue and response at hand.
Find your collective compass
Companies often invest heavily in branding and developing their identities, but they avoid creating structure for their own cultural values. In today’s world, those cultural values are an essential part of a brand and they need to be included in the same conversations that influence the company’s identity.
Today’s customers view value positions as part of the brand. It’s beneficial to have those conversations on your terms and not pre-defined by a riled-up audience. Develop your brand identity around what the company stands for. Patagonia and REI are great examples. They’re rather quiet brands, but they’ve clearly thought out their principles on climate change and national monuments—their press and marketing around those issues has fueled enthusiasm in their communities and more closely aligned the brands to their customers. They are examples of how brands can align their identities with current issues that hit close to home.
Know where your dollars are going
There are a couple of factors that have led to brands being blind to their own advertising efforts. First, the rise of programmatic advertising enables companies to target customers no matter what sites they visit, which sounds great on the surface, but it leads to deeper issues when you examine where those ads are shown. Second, is the obscurity of advertising agencies in execution. They don’t want you to see the inner machinations; they don’t want to give proof. Third, marketers must do more with much less. It limits what we can care about and how much time we can spend on those problems; it leads to a ruthless level of prioritization.
Those are symptoms of a larger problem, but there’s no good excuse for a brand that doesn’t know where its investment is going. Brands can vet approved advertising outlets upfront; they can demand more transparency on where ads are placed. It’s lazy and it’s bad branding.
Do you really want your ads to show on sites that don’t match your brand? Do you want ads displaying on sites with divisive content?
Vet outlets with your agency. Be strict and understand that where your ads display gives just as much of an impression as the ad itself. Make sure you’re not down at the bottom with the click-bait. It’s not difficult, it’s just good marketing.
Know your customer
What happens if an outlet on which your brand advertises gets in trouble and people are outraged? The audience calls for advertisers to pull support. While your brand needs to identify if there is an obligation to act, one thing that should also be analyzed is simply who is outraged? Who is “they” and are they your customers?
Many of the media fiascos have merit, but it’s easy to produce a storm of tweets. It’s outrage by convenience, and it’s difficult to measure how big of a deal each one is because it’s so easy to trigger moral outrage over both tiny and large infractions. The easy answer? Don’t use Twitter as a barometer. Twitter only operates in extremes of hate-filled trolling, moral righteousness and cat videos.
The more difficult answer is to know your actual customers. What are their values? Do they match up with the company’s value statements and stance on advertising? In an era of data targeting and personalization, try to understand what your customers are thinking.
While an issue may or may not be hurting sales, it’s not an excuse for a failure to identify where your brand stands on certain cultural issues. That being said, identifying your actual customers will provide a better indicator of where the brand stands with the people that matter most and it will help you understand how to communicate with them.
Adapt to the new reality
One thing that’s always stunning is how late to the game so many brand executives are with major shifts in technology, culture, buying habits, and generational differences. If the brand is reactive, it’s already too late.
A proactive approach tailored to the changing forces within each generation is paramount to traversing the cultural issues that have encumbered so many brands and caused others to go bankrupt from their inability to adapt to unmistakable, macro forces that are evolving not only shopping habits, but also the looking glass that everything is viewed through from politics to products. Brands can’t blunder unwittingly into the public sphere any longer. It’s simply too visible and far too controversial. Be proactive, know your customer, hold vendors to a higher standard, and learn that the tools of yesterday won’t be enough for the future. It’s time to evolve and adapt.
Evan Magliocca is brand marketing manager for Baesman Insights & Marketing, a full-service agency that partners with retailers to create highly-targeted, data-driven customer marketing, loyalty and CRM programs. Baesman is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, with partnerships across the United States, including those with American Girl, DSW, Rag & Bone, Shoe Carnival, Stanley Steemer, Rite Rug and more.